Seeing and Discovery: Where Poems Come From (2)

By Dr. Holly Ordway

Image by Mateusz Stachowski via stock.xchng
Image by Mateusz Stachowski via stock.xchng

Where do poems come from? Kelly Belmonte has written a series of posts exploring that very topic, and invited me to contribute my thoughts. In my first response, I reflected on the ‘discovery’ aspect of writing poetry.

But the starting point for discovery, for the play of words that I love so much, is nearly always located in the act of seeing.

Many of my poems, or images within a poem, come from a visual image, usually something in nature: a goldfinch landing on a bare twig; light shining through leaves; the view of a canal through a stone bridge’s arch.

That’s one of the reasons I like to walk, when I can: the slow pace of walking allows me to really notice my surroundings, and to stop and stare in order to really take in what I see. Then, later, I might try to show the reader some glimpse of what I see, in words that will open up some of the enchantment I felt:

…I pause beneath a bridge, and watch
The water flowing onward in the light,
Into a living picture framed by stone.

What I hope for, as I work with an image, is to open it up, to be fully present to it, and in so doing, to discover (and express) something of what the image means.

When I was writing a poem for my godson, on the occasion of his baptism, I wanted to write something that connected with the land, with the family farm. I had an abundance of possible images to choose from, but one that kept coming to mind was of fences, which made it into the poem:

Winter sunlight spills past their shadows, across
Fenced fields and pastures, each line the mark and measure
Of a man’s mind.

As I held the image in my mind, in the composition of the poem, I came to realize how important fences are for a farmer: not merely as boundary markers, but as safeguards to keep the sheep from straying, and of ways to divide the farmland into different uses: pasture, yard, vegetable garden. And so the fence became both part of the description of landscape, and also an element that spoke of the farmer’s intentionality and mindfulness in his vocation.

It’s my favorite image in that poem – not least because I also discovered, as I found words for it, that the line fell naturally and fittingly into an Anglo-Saxon-flavored alliterative form. Seeing, and discovery!


Holly is a poet, teacher, and apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. Follow Dr. Ordway’s reflections on the practice of living a holy life at her website at  


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